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Patterns of democracy: A sub-national analysis of the German Länder


This article evaluates the patterns of democracy in the 16 federal states of Germany. By replicating Lijphart's analysis for the German sub-national context, we attempt to explain the connections between the political-institutional variables in the Länder democracies. Using factor analysis, it is possible to distinguish a three-dimensional pattern. Whereas the western area-states and Saxony tend to exhibit majoritarian traits, the eastern Länder and the city-states are more likely to display consensual patterns of power-sharing. The origins of these differing patterns of consensus and majoritarian democracy can be partially found in the unique constitutional traditions of their Allied occupying powers, critical historic junctures, as well as in the point in time when the state constitution was ratified.

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  1. The reasons why we have based our analyses on the period from 1990 to 2005 and have refrained from analysing sub-periods are the following: (1) First, by using an extended time span we hope to mask out strong aberrations caused by particularly momentous historical events. In democracy research, periods in which states are newly formed are considered to be ‘moments of great drama’ which are accompanied by incomparable political, social and economic tensions (Kostadinova, 2003, p. 743). For instance, with regard to decentralization, the enormous structural changes inherent in the transition from a communist to a capitalist regime, as well as the legacies of the GDR – particularly in the area of public service – led, in the early 1990s, to considerable fluctuations in the field of public finance. (2) Moreover, a restriction of the analysis to the first half of the 1990s would be forced to confront a large number of gaps in the available data: For instance, the constitutions of the new Länder only entered into force between June 1992 and October 1993. In the preceding years, the five new Länder used provisional constitutions which consisted of only a small number of organizational state regulations. The constitutional courts of the East German Länder (including Berlin) only took up work between 1992 (Berlin) and 1995 (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Thuringia). Additionally, in Berlin and Hamburg popular legislation has existed only since 1997 and 1996, respectively.

  2. While the feature of bicameralism is not relevant in the German Länder between 1990 und 2005 (only in Bavaria a powerless second chamber existed until 1999) and central bank independence simply does not exist at the sub-national level we have not included the system of labour relations in our analysis of the Länder for the following reasons. In the first place, it should be noted with reference to the relevant literature that the levels at which labour relations are negotiated are not identical with the political boundaries of the Länder (Keller, 2008). On the one hand, a stronger decentralization of labour relations can be observed where negotiations are held at company level. On the other hand, in individual sectors the levels of negotiation sometimes extend over several Länder (for instance, the northern German metal industry employers’ association, the Nordverbund, covers the federal states of Hamburg, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schleswig-Holstein and parts of Lower Saxony), whereas in other cases the results of negotiations achieved at the federal level are implemented by all of the regional units of the Länder (for example, in the civil services sector). Furthermore, by concentrating on the electoral and party systems, government, parliament, the state architecture, justice and direct democracy, we follow Schmidt's (2000, p. 349 et seq.) much-noted criticism of Lijphart (1999) in which Schmidt accuses Lijphart of, on the one hand, overstretching the concept of democracy by taking into account institutions such as the Central Bank and labour relations. On the other hand, Schmidt considers Lijphart to insufficiently consolidate the form of governance by disregarding essential components of democracy, such as direct democratic participation rights.

  3. The correlation often claimed to exist between constitutional rigidity and the frequency of constitutional amendments cannot be confirmed for the German Länder because despite great similarities concerning constitutional rigidity there are major differences between the Länder when it comes to the frequency of constitutional amendments.

  4. In contrast to Lijphart's assumption (1999), the existing variance of judicial review can only be inadequately explained by different degrees of constitutional rigidity.

  5. The factor analysis chosen here is a principal component analysis with orthogonal, rotated factor loadings in accordance with the Varimax Criterion. Principal component analysis is the most commonly used and most important technique for the determination of factors. In principal component analysis, the coordinate system with the factorizing characteristics is rotated so that new axes emerge, successively explaining maximum variance. The orthogonal (right-angled) rotation technique ensures that the factors are independent of each other (reciprocally uncorrelated). Rotation using the Varimax Criterion causes the factors to be rotated in such a way that the variance of the squared loadings per factor is maximized. This process aims to create the best possible structure for the significant factors.

  6. An isolated analysis for the West German member states has confirmed the structure of factors.

  7. The exact factor values for all German Länder are located in the appendix.

  8. The constitutions of the Länder (the new Länder and the city-states excluded) were ratified on the following dates: Baden-Württemberg, 11 November 1953; Bavaria, 2 December 1946; Hesse, 1 December 1946; Lower Saxony, 13 April 1951; North Rhine-Westphalia, 28 June 1950; Rhineland-Palatinate, 18 May 1947; Saarland, 15 December 1947; and Schleswig-Holstein, 13 December 1949.

  9. The American occupation zone included Bavaria, Bremen, Hesse and Württemberg-Baden. The British zone extended to Hamburg, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein. France occupied Baden, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Württemberg-Hohenzollern, whereas the Soviet Union controlled the territory of today's new Länder (Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia). Berlin was divided into four sectors which later formed West and East Berlin (Pfetsch, 1990, p. 27 et seq.).

  10. Kaiser (1998) differentiates between various dimensions of veto points in political systems. The veto points may exist in a compensatorily interdependent relationship to one another (consociational veto points, influential and decisive points of delegation, influential and decisive points of expertise, and legislative veto points). With this approach, veto points are not simply added up, but rather categorized according to their functions and effects in order to preserve the patterns of power-sharing and interaction specific to the units of analysis.


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This article was written as part of a research project on Patterns of democracy in the German Laender that was financially supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). We are grateful to the anonymous referees and the editors for their helpful comments and suggestions. Also, we would like to thank Birgit Jacob and Jennifer Shore for their assistance in preparing the final manuscript.

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Appendix A

Table A1

Table a1 Factor values for the 16 German Länder

Appendix B

Index of Electoral Proportionality

This index measures the degree of electoral proportionality in the German Länder over time. It is comprised of three indicators and is calculated as follows (see Table B1):

Table b1 Indicator values for 1990 to 2005

Index of electoral proportionality (x) t =

Coding of indicators: ‘0’ (low) and ‘1’ (high). Analogous to the aggregated index values.

Electoral formula: This indicator is comprised of the means by which citizens elect their representatives and the availability of compensatory additional list seats (Ausgleichsmandate). Losers and Surplus Method=0; list proportional representation=1; personalized proportional representation=0.5; personalized proportional representation with compensatory additional list seats available=0.75.

Seat allocation formula: d’Hondt=0; Hare-Niemeyer and Sainte-Laguë=1.

Electoral threshold: Indicator combining threshold and alternative clauses. Threshold above 5 per cent, no Grundmandat clause=0; no threshold=1.

Effective Number of Parties

The effective number of parties as defined by Laakso and Taagepera (1979); own calculations on the basis of the parties’ seat shares in parliament (ENP=1/Σ p i 2). [ENP=effective number of parties].

Type of Cabinet

per cent of consensual forms of government, defined as oversized coalitions, grand coalitions of CDU and SPD supported by at least two-thirds of the members of parliament and minority cabinets in relation to all governments, without caretaker governments, weighted by days.

Institutional Index of Executive Dominance

Additive, unweighted index, consisting of 10 items with a range of values from 0 to 1 for each item. Three items describe the electoral functions (A through C); three the control functions (H through J); and four the legislative function of parliaments (D through G). In order to account for amendments to the institutional rules under consideration in a given Land over time, the affected indicator will be weighted by days. Low values indicate executive dominance:

A: Formation of the government: 0=Parliament elects only the head of government; 0.5=Cabinet is appointed by the head of government, requires parliamentary approval; 1=Parliament elects the head of government and the individual ministers.

B: Vote of no-confidence by the parliament: 0=no vote available; 0.5=no-confidence vote only against the head of government; 1=no-confidence vote also available against individual ministers.

C: Motion of Confidence: 0=Government can request parliamentary dissolution by means of a Motion of Confidence; 1=no Motion of Confidence possible.

D: Control of parliamentary agenda: 0=majority vote able to broaden the agenda; 1=simple majority insufficient to broaden the agenda.

E: Plenary session before committee stage: 1=legislative proposals can be referred to a committee without prior approval by a plenary session; 0=legislative proposals can only be referred to a committee after a plenary session.

F: Right of initiative: 0=no right of initiative for the individual representatives; 1=unrestricted right of initiative for the individual representatives (Siaroff, 2003).

G: Suspensive veto rights: 1=Government cannot exercise suspensive veto power over Landtag legislation; 0=Government has suspensive veto power over Landtag legislation.

H: Parliamentary citation: 1=Parliamentary minority has the right to cite responsible ministers to respond to questions personally, 0=Parliamentary majority required to cite responsible ministers to respond to questions personally.

I: Request for submission of files (Berichtsersuchen): 1=Parliamentary minority has the right to demand the submission of governmental files, 0=Parliamentary majority required to demand the submission of governmental files.

J: Parliamentary control over abstract judicial review: 1=judicial review upon request of one parliamentary fraction, in Bavaria upon request of any citizen; 0.5=abstract judicial review upon request of 20 per cent to 33.3 per cent of the members of the Landtag; 0=no abstract judicial review.

Tax Revenue of the Municipalities as a Percentage of the Total Tax Revenue of the Land

Percentage of municipal revenue (without conditional grants from Land level) in relation to the total revenue of Land and municipalities.

Index of Constitutional Rigidity

This index is based on the required majorities needed to amend the constitution as specified by the Länder constitutions. For constitutions that allow for alternative procedures (Act of Parliament or referendum), only the alternative that implies fewer barriers was considered – an approach mirroring those of Lijphart (1999, p. 221) and Lorenz (2005, p. 346). It is thus assumed that Acts of Parliament imply fewer hurdles, thereby rendering constitutional changes easier. If the means to amending a constitution vary with regard to the section to be amended, the measurement then orients itself to the most easily amended section. While this measurement follows Lorenz (2005), it diverges from Lijphart (1999). If the procedures concerning amendment to the constitution were reformulated during the period under investigation, the measurement was weighted to account for this change.

The following table shows a categorization of procedural rules for parliamentary votes by means of a typology comprised of the dimensions ‘required majority of parliamentary voters’ and ‘required majority of representatives present’.

In addition to a parliamentary resolution, a referendum, which must be approved by the majority of voters, is required to pass the draft bill in Bavaria and Hesse. Looking at the typology in Table B2, an index value of 0.5 is added to these Länder in order to account for the added referendum requirement.

Table b2 Typology of the majorities required in the Landtage in order to amend a constitution

Strength of Judicial Review

The strength of judicial review calculated according to the number of competences of the individual constitutional courts and to the number of proceedings in which individual citizens are entitled to file a petition. If court competences or citizen petition rights were modified during the period from 1990 to 2005, the measurement was weighted to account for this change. Both indicators were then z-standardized. The mean of the standardized values produces the index for measuring the strength of the constitutional courts.

Additive Index of Direct Democracy

Additive index calculated, covering all six direct democratic instruments available in the Länder. The values of the three instruments popular initiative, recall and plebiscite are comprised of several indicators each (among other factors, this index takes the number of signatures required and ballots to be taken, deadlines, and specifications concerning the public announcement of the procedures into account). The facultative referendum, the obligatory referendum and the arbitrating referendum are assigned one value each (available/not available). Adding these values, which range between ‘0’ and ‘1’, we obtain an overall value range from ‘0’ to ‘6’ for our index of direct democracy, with ‘0’ indicating maximal concentration of power and ‘6’ maximal diffusion of power.

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Freitag, M., Vatter, A. Patterns of democracy: A sub-national analysis of the German Länder. Acta Polit 44, 410–438 (2009).

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  • power-sharing
  • consensus democracy
  • majoritarian democracy
  • comparative analysis
  • political institutions